Therapy Blunder: Basket Weaving

Basket Weaving, an innocuous activity of early occupational therapy is also the go-to trope for all things mental and pointless.

Why? Where did it all go wrong? Why so much hate for basket weaving? And what does this do for the therapy modalities associated with it?

Let's Start with the Basket.

Sadly, the basket has a long and lowly history -- it is the "other" of the craft world. The very definition of low-tech and never a status object in the western world, baskets were made by women, "natives," the mentally ill, and the disabled.

Until recently, baskets were carried by the poor or serving class and held dirty laundry, fish, the occasional severed head, manure, scraps and trash. In this, both the act of basket weaving and the product has tainted basket weaving in cultural memory.

16th century - 18th century: The "Bawdy Basket"
A Bawdy Basket was a female beggar (called a canter) who sold "pins, tape, ballads and obscene books." [Grose, "Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue," 1785]

16th century - Victorian Times: The "Basket Beggar" 
The basket beggar would wander around asking for food at back doors.

"Mrs. McCoskey --familiar as a basket-begger to many householders--is the most disgusting creature in the alley; she is blear-eyed and dripping-eyed to pimply-faced and smutty-tongued. She is very loyal to her husband, who has been in the insane asylum for the last thirteen years..."  - from The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public by Susan Marie Schweik

"Charity was more clear-cut in the case of the basket beggar, who made the rounds asking for food at back doors. Begging and charity were both common in small towns and cities before public transportation separated poor from prosperous neighborhoods. Nineteenth century household manuals almost routinely discuss responsibilities to the poor and ideas of Christian charity as part of the duties of the household and an essential element of the"woman's sphere."
- from Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash by Susan Strasser

And then Basket Weaving...

1840's - 1960's Crafting at the Insane Asylum.
Recreational crafting was a key selling point of the Asylum System of the 19th century. With the dissolution of the great mental health hospitals in the late 1960's, basket weaving and came to be viewed as a childlike, feminine, and a potentially dehumanising activity.

"I am having unmistakable evidences, that what we have been doing for the occupation and amusement of our patients is becoming known very generally, and in many quarters, that are important to our permanent success, is recognized as a proof that we are at least in the front rank of [mental] institutions." - 1864 - Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane

1917 Occupational Therapy & Basket Weaving
During WWI, occupational therapy was becoming better organized and well known. On March 15, 1917, the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy was founded, and basket weaving became the symbolic approach of therapists in this field. Photos of soldiers weaving, carving prosthetic limbs and making shoes were distributed in the media and entered the public consciousness.

1919 "Basket Case" original meaning
At the close of WW1 there were rumors of quadriplegic men being transported in baskets - hence the term "basket case." There's no record of this except for a denial by the Surgeon General of the US Army... "denies ... that there is any foundation for the stories that have been circulated ... of the existence of 'basket cases' in our hospitals."

Were injured men carried around in baskets? I don't think so, my best guess is the term "basket" was a slang term applied to the wicker wheelchairs of that time.

1950's "Underwater Basket Weaving"
Underwater basket weaving emerges as a joking figure of speech which refers to a worthless college or university course.

1967 "Basket Case" - Figurative sense
The term "Basket Case" morphs to mean a "person emotionally unable to cope"

Song: Napoleon XIV "They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!"
partial lyrics:

They're coming to take me away, ha-haaa.
 They're coming to take me away, ho-ho, hee-hee, ha-haaa.
 To the funny farm, where life is beautiful all the time and I'll be happy 
to see those nice young men in their clean white coats and they're coming 
to take me away, ha-haaa!!!
 To the happy home, with trees and flowers and chirping birds and basket
weavers who sit and smile and twiddle their thumbs and toes and they're
 coming to take me away, ha-haa!!! 
To the funny farm, where life is beautiful all the time... (fade out)

1970  Time Magazine asks: "Is Basket Weaving Harmful?"

Monday, Oct. 12, 1970

"Awakened at the crack of dawn for an inhumanly early breakfast, the patient in a typical U.S. mental hospital faces a day of TV watching, pingpong, checkers, and perhaps a bit of dishwashing or floor mopping. Then there is lunch at 11:30, an hour of basket weaving or making leather belts, and dinner at 4:30 to end a day spent entirely in the company of his own sex. Is this routine rehabilitating?"

1982 Basket Case - Horror Film
"A young man carrying a big basket that contains his deformed Siamese-twin brother seeks vengeance on the doctors who separated them against their will."

How To Clarify the Image of Occupational Therapy

To combat the therapy image challenge, I suggest a two prong approach.

1. The way I read it, the enormously powerful WW1 propaganda machine is largely responsible for Occupational Therapy's lingering image problem. The war coverage was a boon to Occupational Therapy at the time but has since become a curse.

To counter this stain, a significant advertising campaign with a new, easy to understand iconic symbol would be needed. The general public has only the vaguest definition of Occupational Therapy -- the official wordy definition is too ambiguous. By carefully choosing a highly regarded symbol to replace basket weaving, Occupational Therapy might come to be properly understood at a glance.

2. Certainly, basket weaving isn't the staple activity it used to be, however, perhaps current rehabilitative tasks bear a similar taint?

From a practical point of view, any therapist should examine closely the cultural capital and potential added stigma of the activities we choose for our clients. If we are working with clients who are or have been humbled by life, our hardest task might be finding activities that society deems useful, prosperous and holds in high esteem.



I think it's sad that basket weaving has gotten such a bad rap. To me it seems to reflect the lack of value our culture puts on slowing down and focussing on specific tasks, which to me seems like one of the big therapeutic benefits to any kind of craft (plus, it's so cool to make your own stuff).

leigh's picture

Heather - I agree with you - it is sad. I went to university for traditional fine arts, learning some of the most ancient techniques is fascinating and meditative -- However, I wasn't thinking much about gainful employment at the time and had the luxury of imagining, if only for a few years that I had the time to invest in non-essentials. That is a luxury few can afford to indulge in.

On the more practical side, if you have 75% technical, contemporary skill development (designing, building, developing, operating current computers, equipment or whatever skills are possible for that client... then I think maybe 25% of the time can be spent on crafting and life enjoyment.

It would be a wonderful, ideal world if we all could slow down and enjoy our own own labor.

Not only is it sad; it is counter-productive to both the Occupational Therapy field and the crafting world (which is also an industry itself here in the US) to belittle the skills - both tangible and not-so - gained from the practice of basket-weaving or other handicrafts. A commonly accepted layperson's medical definition for Occupational Therapy is: "the therapeutic use of self-care, work, and play activities to increase function, enhance development, and prevent disabilities". ( How does basket-weaving, or most other "craft" projects, not fit that definition? And who can argue with the benefits of gaining such measurable advances as improved manual dexterity, increased visual focus, better rote memorization (of the steps involved in, or the place one is currently at in the project - such as row 42, stitch 9) and increased range of motion in the small-muscle groups? Those skills make us more productive at ANY task - including income-producing employment.

As for the basket - really? What about the success of the Longaberger basket company? Baskets have also traditionally been used to haul such prized goods as: rare produce, flowers, beloved small pets, and every conceivable household necessity that would fit into it in some cultures (the Dutch attached them to their bicycles as primary transport all the way through WWII and beyond, for example).

On the other hand, I completely agree that the OT field needs a new mascot for the 21st century. Currently, I am at a loss as to what that might be - and it would probably be better-received from a licensed OT anyway. The fact is that current Occupational Therapy DOES include a majority of exercises based on work (occupation); once a client has progressed past the ADL skills they need to even GET a job. It has also branched out in other directions that many know little about - until they or someone they know/care about needs that particular focus (sensory integration-desensitization as an example).

Disclaimer: I am not an Occupational Therapist or even a Certified OT Aide. However, I have a fair amount of experience dealing with OTs and OT issues; personally and quasi-professionally for Advocacy clients, and I must say I think it is one of the most underrated and least appreciated, though most needed, fields of therapy out there - especially for today's modern, electronic, faster than the speed of light, working world.

leigh's picture

Point taken - however, I would argue that Longaberger's popularity in the 1980's was regional ( PA/Ohioish areas) and tied to a "Colonial" decorating trend.

Again, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with baskets or basket weaving, it's just that whenever basket weaving interfaces with medicine, therapy, charity etc. it isn't highly valued and the people who do it are not as valued in this context.

Frankly, I think people who need to be humbled (like Bernard Madoff) could do with a course of basket weaving as a part of their therapy... I

While I am all for Bernie Madoff receiving instruction in the art of actually CREATING A TANGIBLE PRODUCT! - I do wonder if that would really achieve your goal of getting recognition for the work that goes into handicrafts as therapy. After all, many of us ordinary people of "humble" means and background have lost any respect we might have had for him and his ilk by now.
And as for the Longaberger thing being regional and time (era) encapsulated; you may be right about that. Still, someone, somewhere, found a way to make basket-weaving into gainful employment. Many of the other arts and crafts projects practiced by therapy patients and others, too, have supported an industry in supplies for those crafts that is still doing well, even in this recession. My personal take is that we intrinsically know that handicrafts are therapeutic; whether we are actually in therapy or not. And so, for personal pleasure or for a creative outlet of our need to express ourselves, we seek such pastimes.
The real problem is that mental/emotional health is one of the last bastions of prejudice left. We dare not use racial epithets, but we can still freely call someone who is a psychological patient, or even just severely upset and in need of some temporary professional help, a "basket case" with little to no negative fallout. Why? Because therapy patients (clients, we usually say, in our attempt to correct derogatory views) are NOT valued; in fact, they are DE-valued. And those who treat them (with the notable exception of MD psychiatrists) do not fare much better in the respect hierarchy. THAT is a problem that needs addressing, just as much as changing the symbol for any one branch of therapy. IMHO.

leigh's picture

Excellent points Denise!

Denise I agree with you in that stigma and discrimination are at the root of the issue here: that's it's really not so much about the baskets as the people who are associated with them. I think basket weaving has the connotations that it does because the stereotype is that if you're weaving baskets, you're either 'feeble-minded' or 'crazy', both of which are still both a joke and an insult, in our culture. There also seems to be a flavor of basket-weaving and other crafts as being a waste of time thrown into the mix as well, which I think colors professions that use these tools. It all feeds right back into our medical model: we all know what 'real' treatment looks like, right?
My personal favorite use of baskets is for picnics.

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